The afternoon meeting was the second such session Obama has held this week on Capitol Hill, and perhaps the toughest audience of the four scheduled. All sides, however, declared the meeting to be respectful but frank, a positive step ahead of challenging negotiations on the budget and long-term debt, among other issues.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called the session a “very frank and candid exchange of ideas,” and a productive one at that. “We know, however, that there are some very real differences between our two parties,” he added. “Republicans want to balance the budget. The president doesn't.”
The president took seven questions from a pre-selected list of Republican lawmakers, including one about the need to repair trust between the White House and the House’s majority party. Other topics were largely budget related, including one question about cancellation of White House tours after recent budget cuts took effect, according to multiple attendees.
The meeting played out as the House Budget Committee opened debate over the new Republican budget blueprint and as the Democratic-led Senate offered its first budget in years. Obama was asked when he would put forward his own budget and why Democratic plans would not seek to fully erase budget deficits as the Republican plan did. The president answered that his foremost concern was not to disrupt positive economic trends.
Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) reflected what he called the “hesitation” of some of his colleagues to work with the president, particularly after what they viewed as his campaign-like posture ahead of the across-the-board spending cuts that took place after Congress and the White House failed to find an alternative.
“That’s a hurdle he recognized he has to overcome,” Grimm said. “We feel the president has been very political and very calculated. He assured us, I think his quote was, ‘We’re not that smart. We’re not that far ahead of the curve.’”
Obama also told the room that the sincerity of his efforts to work with Republicans won’t simply mean he adopts Republican principles instead of Democratic ones. A White House official said that, with the election behind them, both sides “did not need to resolve all policy differences to make progress on challenges facing the country where there is agreement.”
In an auspicious note, the president at one point broke from remarks to announce word passed to him from an aide that white smoke was visible at the Vatican, a sign that leaders of the Catholic church had selected a new pope. The news prompted one lawmaker to ask whether that meant the White House would reopen to the public.
“He said, ‘We can all pray,’” recalled Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), in what was a light moment during the visit.